back after the break: four letters on the sublime
The Plant Hunters
Adventures Among the Himalaya Mountains
All landscape architects, somehow, have to handle an implicit tendency for grandeur madness.
After a short break, I have now returned for some monthly blogging. My current sabbatical has made me more conscious about more than one essential aspect of life, foremost about being sociable. As a scientist and recently as a political advisor (see here for all Dutch), the sensation of socialness is often disputed by an eagerness to perform amongst only a small group of likeminded.
I return to sharing by an open sourced manner, to pick the fruits of creative labor and harvest in a feast of collectivity. In the next four posts I will share four letters on the subject of the sublime. As some of you might know, the landscape sublime has been the subject of my research for the past seven years. And since my dissertation is still being debated – and might possibly not surface at all, I have decided to publish parts of it. Waiting for academic approval is a process that is counterproductive to the creation of knowledge and unexpected epiphanies. The four letters, of which the first is published below, are part of a collection of fictive letters by archetypical characters. They represent a discourse over a long period of time and reveal how the experience of nature and designed landscapes, including cities, has changed over time.
The French Alps, September 1739
Highly esteemed Professor Criterion,
This letter will hopefully arrive at your place in London without much delay, although postage at this distance is hazardous and not without ‘accidents’. We made acquaintance at the most pleasant occasion organized by Mme Brinoir in Oxford Street last spring. Right after that tremendously inspiring evening when I had the opportunity of meeting both yourself and the poet Thomas Gray, I left on the first coach in the morning to the nearest seaport to embark on the Dyonisius to France. My journey to the French Alps has gained much in importance due to our conversation.
I was sent by my clients to examine some exotic planting that can be used in the southern regions of Britain to enhance the country estates and their perceived beauty. Yet my objectives have, due to our agreement, been broadened to explore the rough and wild lands that are made of some pure essence-de-vivre. This is the reason that I am writing you this letter. I enclose some sketches of my recent discoveries. These will certainly excite you and prove your theory about untamed lands and their specific attractiveness.
During my sea voyage, I was much occupied reading the book you lent me, On the Sublime by William Smith. The French plant spotter I met at the hotel and who guided me into the mountains, at first sight a highly sophisticated fellow with a fine knowledge of classic literature, knew of a similar book in French by Nicolas Boileau Despreaux, published more than seventy years earlier. Boileau is known as a French poet and critic and expressed ideas that are very similar to your theory. The book by Smith almost seems to be a translation of Boileau’s work.
If I had not been instructed by you, I would have put the book aside, because to me there seems to be hardly any familiarity between poetry and my occupation. However, the spines and pinnacles of the Alps made an instant impression on me. I saw the land anew, as if through the eyes of an infant. I could suddenly see something beyond the mountains, something grand and eternal. It was as if a mighty planter had spoken, but in the form of rock and clouds and winds and mist and sketchy tree lines. I could ‘read’ the mountains and their narrative was about a world I knew nothing about. At the same time, something seemed to be resonating inside me: an ancient tale about the source of these mountains, when even mountains were young and without any awareness of their destiny in ages and ages to come. Even beyond these mountains lies a narrative of such a grandeur and origin that it seems impossible to relate myself to such a deep and all-consuming source.
I dared not venture more into this sensation and turned round to face the ground and bury myself in all the dust and humbleness I could find. How frightened I became. Nothing had prepared me for this response. I felt ashamed to have explored the narrative behind these lofty mountains, without any permission. Not gentlemanly at all.
Later, in my cabin, I saw reason again and remembered passages in the book that seemed relevant. I spoke of this with my guide and he could not hide a gleeful smile, as if I had just seen a naked woman for the first time in my life and spoke of this with my own mother. My guide was patient with me, which revealed him as an equal. Although very familiar with the mountains, he too knew of this sensation, except without any shame.
This struck me as odd and almost uncanny. Nobody could have seen and known what I had seen and understood without the deepest shame and reluctance possible. At one time I was so angry with him that I raced outside to cool down. Yet, instead of a soothing night I found myself underneath the most dramatic and enlightening dome of stars that I ever beheld. The sheer vastness and clarity of all these lightened sources shining upon me in one singular direction nearly made me faint. All of heaven’s consciousness peered into me without any possible resistance. I despaired and did not know where to go. I could not go out, nor go in, ashamed as I was.
Exhausted I fell asleep on the spot and found myself warm inside the cabin the next morning. After that experience I saw reason for the second time. I understood the attitude of my guide. You cannot be in a wild and ominous land without maintaining a certain distance from this ‘sublime’. Man can create poetry that can be withstood and enjoyed, but being near the real source comes with an inborn distance that is respectful and dignified. Although my guide denied the distance I explained to him, he most certainly must have known all about it. There is simply no other way.
It is like you said that evening at Mme Brinoir’s, tragic art is the human variation on the true sublime source that is laid bare in the wild land – underneath a heaven full of stars, I can now add. The pain and shame that is undoubtedly present in the human incapacity to stand before the true sublime can be withstood by tragic poetry or a tragic play. Shame can thus be transformed into pleasure and a pleasant evening amongst educated gentlemen, very much like the empathic distance we keep amongst good company concerning our spouses and daughters. The sublime itself really ought to be manly, because its devastating powers are grander than any general with all the armies he can muster.
The ‘real’ sublime can strike us, ravish our souls and might even transport us to places we do not belong and would not survive. The ‘tragic’ sublime is a style, very much like poetry. We express noble ideas that would otherwise be too great or awful to describe.
Your theory has been proven. In the French Alps lies a sublime source that holds the secrets of all that goes beyond. I wonder if Britain contains such a true sublime source as well. Something inside me hopes this is true, but most of me is too frightened to experience yet another such accident as that particular day and evening. I have made some sketches of the view that took me at that sorrowful moment and hope it contains some tragic and artistic qualities. A tragic report is the best I can provide you with without having to experience the same anxiety that I did.
I want to share one more thing with you. My French guide spoke about an ancient Greek poet by the name of Dionysius or Longinus. This shook me because not only was Dionysius the name of the boat that brought me here, but Boileau’s book was dedicated to this ancient master of poetry and speech, who discussed the great works of literature and poetry that have indeed survived the centuries until now. Longinus apparently believed that a great work of art somehow conveys a part of the true sublime source, as if blessed by creation itself or bearing a part of creation itself. This confers upon it a density of meaning we would otherwise not possess. Could this be the real secret of art that conveys the sublime? My guide merely smiled as I suggested this. He responded that we are tragic beings ourselves, not able to experience the fullness of creation. Even if we ventured to the very end, beyond that which is grand and inconceivable, we would not reach a source, we would only meet ourselves. At this point I can only assure you that I most effectively opposed his ignorant vision of our human capacity. After collecting some plant species and seeds I will be glad to set foot again in Britain, whose rich culture has rid itself of such primitive limitations.
Yours and truly,